Ready for Primetime: Strikeforce rolls the dice with Fedor vs. Rogers

Elton HobsonCorrespondent ISeptember 26, 2009

NEW YORK - JANUARY 20:  Heavyweight mixed martial arts champion Fedor 'The Last Emperor' Emelianenko of Russia attends the 'Day of Reckoning' press conference at Trump Tower January 20, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images)

Anyone who is familiar with my earlier blogs knows I have written some less then flattering things about Fedor Emelianenko. As a result, some people have the mistaken impression that I hate the affable Russian heavyweight. Make no mistake - Fedor Emelianenko is one of the sports true greats. Incredibly well rounded and mentally unflappable, he had perhaps the most unblemished and successful title run in MMA history during his tenure as Pride Heavyweight champion from 2003-2007. His fights with Mirko Cro Cop, Kevin Randleman, and his three battles with Minotauro Nogueria stand as all time classics of MMA. He is truly a legend in the sport. For that reason, I am glad that the sport’s number 1 heavyweight will be making his network television debut on CBS`s Strikeforce card on November 7. It is rightfully a proud day for MMA, a new and better direction following the embarrassment of the Kimbo Slice headlined Elite XC disasters of 2008.

But I would be less then honest if I didn’t admit that "The Last Emperor`s" career path of the last few years has been extremely frustrating.

The latest breakdown between the UFC and Fedor`s management dredged up all the old accusations regarding Fedor`s less then stellar dance card of late. Fans endlessly debate the merits of Fedor`s non-UFC competition, but to me there’s an even larger issue at stake. However you feel about Fedor Emelianenko, the truth is that since PRIDE closed their doors in early 2007, the uncrowned heavyweight champion and possible number 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA has fought exactly four times. The result has been the occasional non-speaking role in a film, a grappling exhibition with lightweight Shinya Aoki - and lots of inactivity. It is maddening to watch Fedor Emelianenko spend the prime of his career in meaningless limbo while his legacy in the sport withers on the vine. Of those four fights, two of them - Middleweight Matt Lindland and Bond villain Hong Man Choi - surely cannot stand as serious challenges to The Last Emperor. Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were regarded as legitimate competition when he faced them, however Arlovski`s recent losing streak and some downright embarrassing performances from Tim Sylvia have many questioning the legitimacy of those fights after the fact.

Now Fedor is stepping into the cage against Brett Rogers, a relative newcomer to MMA who vaulted from unknown status with a 22 second KO of Andrei Arlovski last June. No matter how exciting a knockout it was, there’s no getting around the fact that Brett Rogers is a neophyte in MMA compared to Emelianenko. As a man who was only training part time in MMA until very recently, he is not nearly as diverse as Fedor and will bring his power punches, size advantage, and little else into the cage with him on Nov. 7.

Emelianenko has always seemed close to finally signing with the UFC as so many of his PRIDE compatriots have, but negotiations always collapse at the eleventh hour. Many reasons were initially floated as to why this occurred, but it has become apparent from Emelianenko`s latest go round with UFC brass that the primary obstacle is M-1 Global, who act as both Emelianenko `s management and a fight promotion of which Fedor is part owner. Go figure that one out. Fedor and his manager, Vadim Finkelstien, are insisting any company that wishes to feature Fedor Emelianenko must co-promote said event with M-1, cutting them in for 50% of the overall profits without incurring any of the potential losses.

Sounds like a good deal to me, if you can swing it. There’s just one problem - there isn’t a chance in hell Dana White will ever agree to it. It`s madness for a company like the UFC - far and away the biggest MMA promotion in the world today - to share half their pie with a small time MMA promotion carrying exactly one (maybe 2, if you count Gegard Mousasi) name fighter on their ledger, one who is nowhere near proven as a PPV draw in the United States. Fedor`s two biggest PPV fights in North America were with the Affliction promotion, where he crushed Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski to win the WAMMA Heavyweight title (promoters insist it`s pronounced W-A-MMA, not WHAMMA!, which would just be silly).

Affliction was a serious fight promotion backed by Oscar De La Hoya and Donald Trump, and seemed ready to gamble on Fedor`s potential stardom by paying his hefty price tag and promoting him as a huge star. The result? Underwhelming PPV buyrates at best combined with a gigantic fighter payroll left Affliction drowning in a sea of red ink. Following the collapse of the Fedor vs. Barnett fight this summer, they closed up shop as a fight promotion and immediately phoned the UFC to get bought out of their insane debt.

Affliction was the second American promotion to take a chance on Fedor as a PPV draw (following BoDog) based on his PRIDE stardom and international acclaim, and the second to learn the painful lesson: Fedor on his own is not a successful PPV draw in the United States. Now Strikeforce is the latest to try their hand at marketing `The Last Emperor` to a Stateside audience, and they are taking the biggest gamble yet: putting Fedor on network television, headlining Strikeforce`s attempt to fill the Elite XC void on CBS. With Brock Lesnar`s `HULK SMASH` routine and brash WWE image becoming ever larger by virtue of the UFC hype machine, Strikeforce is making a dramatic move by promoting the only man who realistically threatens the legitimacy of a reigning UFC champion.

In my opinion, it`s a lose-lose scenario for the Russian star. If he beats Rogers as he should, Dana White and the critics will claim Fedor is once again looking good against lesser competition, and his legacy as a fighter will gain nothing with the addition of Brett Rogers. If he loses - say goodbye to the huge money offers, the network TV deals, the promotions willing to go 50-50 with you based on your name alone.

So I`m against this whole thing, right? Not entirely. Like I said, Fedor being on network TV is a step forward for the sport of MMA, and I sincerely hope Strikeforce can succeed where all others have failed in making a star out of Fedor. If they do, they will be in a position to seriously challenge the UFC`s stateside dominance, and vie for the elusive position of Heavyweight champion, left vacant by the 300 or so sanctioning bodies of boxing. With Gina Carano`s recent blowout loss at the very manly hands of Cyborg Santos, though, it seems Strikeforce is making the same mistake as BoDog and Affliction before them, and placing all their eggs in one fighters basket. If the curtain falls and Fedor cannot draw on network tv - or he can, and then loses to a guy he`s supposed to steamroll - Strikeforce will be hugely setback (though I suspect they would recover). It`s a big roll of the dice.

You can guarantee I`ll watch. But will that elusive average` MMA fan? If they could only get that guy from Bully Beatdown to really draw the MTV crowd…